Before Niklas Okkonen visited Cancun, Mexico, he had never been in trouble with the police — had never even gotten a speeding or parking ticket. He lived the life of an honest citizen of Finland. Had Niklas Okkonen, the professor of wireless communications at Tampere University of Technology in Finland known what lay ahead of him, he might never have boarded the plane in Helsinki for the conference in Cancun.
Niklas was forty-two years old, a father of a sixteen-year-old daughter named Ansa, who “didn’t want to see him again, alive,” her words, and a recent divorcé. His wife, his college sweetheart, had fallen out of love with him as his dreams had faded. She now roared around town in a new Volvo with his old friend Vilpas Heikkien. Vilpas was the vice president of a prestigious software company and provided Niklas’s ex-wife with everything she could want. After all, what are good friends for?
After taking the train to Helsinki, Niklas had boarded a KLM flight to Amsterdam, then a flight to Mexico City, then a short flight to Cancun. Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, around three or four in the morning in some time zone, after the children had stopped crying on the plane and the man in 24D began snoring, having had enough to drink; Niklas began to look at his life. He ran it forward and backward, put it on pause and ran it in slow motion — no, it still did not make sense to him.
Born in a small village in Finland with loving parents, Niklas excelled at school and in sports. Ice hockey, Finland’s passion, was his passion until a knee injury sidelined his hopes of playing in his country’s national hockey league and becoming a Finnish export to the National Hockey League in North America. Eighteen years old, with his sporting hopes dashed, Niklas joined the Finnish Navy. Swimming had been his rehabilitation from his hockey injury, and when a doctor suggested he become a navy diver, Niklas had agreed. He became a demolition team diver, and all of his anger with the world dissipated when he attached large quantities of C-4 explosives to underwater structures and blew them up.
Niklas loved diving: the time underwater, his breath ascending upwards in bubbles, the underwater sounds, the silence. The silence was precious. Even at a young age, Niklas had had acute hearing. Sounds that others could not pick up were loud to him. They were like energy. They resounded and they pulsated. Underwater, the sounds and the energy were still there, but on mute.
In Finland’s military, the standard term of service was twelve months, and Niklas stayed an extra year just to enjoy the diving — the blowing things up wasn’t bad either. When he left the military, he started university. Energy fascinated him, and he decided to study electronic engineering. A bachelor of science was followed by a master’s, which was capped by a doctorate, and Professor Niklas Okkonen then shared his brilliance in a position in Tampere University’s engineering department.
Niklas could have taken a position at Nokia, the major wireless provider in Finland, risen up with the brightest stars of the industry, and made millions of dollars like his friends. But Niklas was fascinated with learning. Teaching became his passion, and his students loved him for it. They would fan the passion that Professor Niklas Okkenon instilled in them and join the myriad of companies that thrived in the Tampere University area, a mini-version of California’s Silicon Valley with long winters and much vodka drinking.
Niklas met his wife to be, Kaarina in his first year of University. She told him her name meant “pure,” and he was smitten from the first time she flashed her pure, blue eyes at him. Kaarina was small but sturdy, almost a Laplander in stature, with high cheekbones, a soft smile, and long, blonde hair. Compared to Niklas, a tall, dark, brooding Fin, she stood out like a diamond.
Their courtship was a whirlwind, fueled by passion and poetry and long-Finland-summer light that led to a stormy marriage that somehow lasted sixteen years, until the past autumn. Kaarina had continually asked Niklas to leave the university and take a position in development with one of the numerous software or wireless companies in the city. All the companies would double or triple his salary, and the yearly bonus would allow them a country house by the lake and trips away from the long Finland winter.
Niklas would not do it. Teaching was his first love, and his dream was to research how energy moved. Energy as sound, energy as light, energy as waves—all this fascinated him—and to harness this energy for companies for profit? Well, it didn’t seem right to him. And his students, one year after another, always amazed him with the questions they asked.
Now he sat in seat 26E on the KLM flight from Amsterdam to Mexico City in economy in the middle of March. His daughter, who had once hung on his every word, now just hung up on him when she answered the phone. Niklas had taught Ansa how to scuba dive when she was twelve years old. They used to go on diving trips together, to the cold Baltic Sea, where their bubbles rose together to the surface, and twice to Egypt and the Red Sea, where they had floated for hours over the bright coral, using hand signs to point out what they saw. Now, no communication from his daughter — only silence.
His doubts about his life came at him like cars going the wrong way on a rush hour freeway. He had watched a program once about police pursuing cars on freeways in LA. The cars fleeing would always speed to the other side of the freeway to escape, hoping the police would crash in the oncoming traffic. Invariably, the ones fleeing would crash. Niklas wondered if perhaps he had gone against the world too much, felt too much, reasoned too much. He sat back, hit the recline button, and felt his seat ease back a merciless inch. He sighed, turned off his light, and tried to sleep.
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